Police: Squirrel Hill banquet hall operated as 'speakeasy'
By Aaron Aupperlee
Published: Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, 8:36 a.m.
Undercover liquor control agents acted on an anonymous tip and shut down a speakeasy, seizing more than two dozen gallons of beer and liquor and highlighting state laws that prohibit unlicensed alcohol sales.
Organizers of a private party held early Sunday morning at the Irish Centre of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill charged an entry fee and distributed free alcohol in violation of state liquor laws, said agent Steve Brison, an officer at the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement in Pittsburgh.
Neither the Irish Centre nor the organizers of the party had a license to sell alcohol.
“Free beer means free beer,” Brison said. “If you have to pay one penny to go through that door, then you are paying for that alcohol.”
Agents served a search warrant about 2:30 a.m. Sunday and confiscated 53.45 liters of liquor, which is about 14 gallons, 15 gallons of beer and $142, Sgt. William Baker said.
“This was what we call a speakeasy,” he said.
Brison would not identify the organizers of the party because the investigation is ongoing. Those involved could face misdemeanor charges of selling alcohol without a license.
Any person or organization can provide free alcohol without a license from the state. Charging for alcohol in any form requires the establishment or the organization to have a license, Brison said.
Even a college house party where people pay $5 for a cup to drink from a keg is illegal, Brison said. Many banquet halls or clubs have liquor licenses, allowing them to sell alcohol. Catering companies and organizations can apply for temporary licenses.
The Irish Centre, which hosts cultural and education events and rents its Forward Avenue building to groups and organizations, is not at fault, Brison said.
Jim Graven, president of the Irish Centre, said its rental agreement states groups cannot sell alcohol. Alcohol is free, and there is no cover charge at Irish Centre events because the organization does not have a liquor license.
“Obviously, there has to be a certain amount of trust. You tell someone that they're not supposed to sell alcohol, and that's the way it should be,” Graven said.
Graven would not say who rented the building for the party. He said the organizers frequently rent the building to throw “after hour” parties between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. There have been no problems in the past, he said.
Liquor control agents received an anonymous tip about a month ago and began investigating, Brison said. Undercover agents visited a party held at the center a few weeks ago, paid a cover charge and were served alcohol. Agents obtained a search warrant and raided the 100-person party, Brison said.
Two Pittsburgh police officers worked the party as part of a special events detail, Brison said. The Irish Centre requires renters to hire police for events.
Brison did not know whether the officers knew organizers were selling alcohol without a license. No one from Pittsburgh police's special events office was available to comment.
Staff writer Margaret Harding contributed to this report. Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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